Wunderkind producer, engineer, and mixer John Goodmanson has worked with a wildly divergent smattering of stylists, artists, and musicians that run the crooked gamut from The Sun to Sleater-Kinney to The Wu-Tang Clan to The Blood Brothers to Death Cab For Cutie. After interning for a few years at The Music Source in Seattle, he opened John & Stu’s Recording Place with Stuart Hallerman (now owner/engineer of Avast! Recording in Seattle), in the Ballard district of Seattle in 1993 in the space that was Jack Endino’s Reciprocal Recording. John sold his share of the studio in 2000 to work freelance full time. Currently residing in Brooklyn, John spoke from the control room of Long View Farm Recording Studio in North Brookfield, MA, where he was in the midst of recovering from another all-night recording session.
“For rock bands I always set out at the beginning to track it as if I’m going to keep all the live parts, and so I set everybody up in a room and have them play together with a vocalist as often as I can. And laying down the tracks from the beginning of the process you can hear it like a song rather than just doing drums to a click and building it from there. Once the initial take is there, a lot of times it will get stripped back down and rebuilt but hopefully there’s at least something remaining to build from. That’s the way I start out, but really it depends on the strengths of the band. Some bands don’t play together very well, especially it seems like these days it’s more and more that way. The idea is that if there’s magic in the live take then you’ve got keeper sounds on everything, and some people play together in a room way better than they overdub.
“I wind up doing it instrument by instrument more now I think than I used to. I think that just has to do with how bands play together [since] I work with younger bands and now it’s more major label stuff, so being closer to perfect is sort of more important than it used to be. Stuff that’s more commercial, more like regular pop music, is definitely all about the energy, but then there’s also a component of it where it needs to be pretty well locked, especially if you’re shooting for FM radio. Really it comes down to what the players can pull off in the live take and what they can’t pull off, then it gets rebuilt instrument by instrument.
“Ideally, when I’m working with a band I want it to be like a ‘rah-rah’ team effort and everybody feels that they can try anything, like they want the technology to completely disappear and any idea that comes up we should be able to try it in pretty short order. It’s always surprising which completely outside the box ideas work . . . you kind of have to be willing to let inspiration strike. That’s what I hate about the friggin’ cookie cutter approach: It’s like you can make a great polished sounding record by sort of running people through that meat grinder. You know, drums to a click, put that on the grid, lay the next guy down, lay the next guy down. You can make good records that way, but it leaves absolutely no room for anything truly inspired to happen.”
On Production + Steve Albini:
“I really try to make each band’s record sound like their own. I don’t have a blueprint for a perfect snare sound or the way I think everything should be. I try to make it like what identifies the band and playing up their strengths is a big part of that. Sometimes bands are bored with their own strengths and it takes a lot of convincing to tell them that that thing they do is really good and part of their identity and they shouldn’t ignore it every chance they get. I try to leave a lot less of a fingerprint. Maybe it’s that I work on a pretty wide variety of stuff, and I don’t think the stuff should all sound the same. Even if they’re all indie rock bands I don’t think they should sound the same.
“And I think nobody leaves a bigger fingerprint than Steve Albini. You can always tell an Albini record, which makes it complete bullshit that he talks about being a documentary guy and not a producer. He leaves a bigger thumbprint than any of us. It’s a good thumbprint though, you know. You can’t mess with Surfer Rosa [by The Pixies/4AD/1988], you can’t mess with In Utero [by Nirvana/DGC/1993], and you certainly can’t mess with The Wedding Present record that he made that he hates [Seamonsters (RCA/1991)]. That record sounds phenomenal, but him saying that he’s less of a control freak than someone who calls himself a producer is . . . aesthetically . . . I don’t think he has anything to stand on. That being said, I think he’s a smart and funny guy and I love a lot of records that he did. I sort of specifically try not to leave a fingerprint, which I always say turns out to be really bad marketing for me in a major label world because there’s so many different things on (my) discography that it becomes confusing to record company people.
On Monitors + Mixing:
“Picking rooms to mix in, for me it comes down to maintenance of the monitoring and the sort of gear is a little bit secondary to that. I’ve been in rooms that were really expensively designed and had what would be considered good monitoring but for whatever reason they didn’t work for me. I need a room that still sounds pretty good when you turn things up because bands, when they come in from a take, wanna hear things loud. I’ve noticed particularly fuckin’ Augsberger monitors that cost like $50,000 or something, like they sound great when you’re listening pretty quiet and they sound terrible when you turn them up. That was kinda the standard certainly at the Hit Factory (NYC), [and also] in a lot of control rooms at least in the East, to have Augsberger monitors up on the wall. I’m really pretty psyched not to be a studio owner anymore because it’s a really terrible business to be in. You wind up making a lot of decisions based on brand recognition and stuff like that, but to me, some of those things are just completely wrong.
“I travel with a pair of KRK E8 speakers that are self-amplified. The first place I used those was up at The Warehouse in Vancouver, B.C. They had some big giant monitors they had on stands [and], the guys up at the Warehouse are smart enough, they took the big ones down for some reason and just left them down. When I asked them about big monitors ’cause they didn’t really have any they were like ‘well we have some we can bring in but check out these KRK’s, everybody seems pretty happy with them.’ And the KRK’s just sounded great, worked beautifully in the room, were not too flattering, but they could get loud. The E8’s seem to work pretty well in different environments. I was real happy that I was able to get ahold of a pair.”
On Bad Animals + Science Guys:
“I can talk shit about the old Hit Factory. Man, that place was just . . . whacked. Talk about the wrong thing to do with a very expensive studio. They had too many rooms so that even though their maintenance staff was really good, they were completely stretched thin and stuff didn’t work a lot of the time. Everything was so about appearances that the monitoring in a lot of the control rooms was completely bizarre.
“Bad Animals [in Seattle] is one of those places where the control room is very well designed and certainly a lot of great records have come out of there . . . but that monitoring environment just doesn’t really work well for me. It certainly is a great joint and they don’t require my endorsement to stay in business, but it’s never been a slam dunk for me in terms of what I was hearing in that control room. [It’s] a real scientific control room, completely overdesigned, and has the widest sweetspot of any control room I’ve ever been in. It’s the most even control room as you walk around, but boy that mix position . . . I have no clue what I’m hearing in the bottom end, and that’s a deal breaker right there. The old rooms, when they had the two API rooms still, were slammin’. Those were both built in the mid-’70s and we did The Wedding Present, Geraldine Fibbers there. Those were great rooms, but they got turned into advertising in both rooms and consoles got sold off and that was a bummer.
“When they call in the science guys to tune a room, like the big shots that get consulted to make big studio control rooms supposedly sound good, it seems like their approach is way too academic. If you have a studio manager or a tech who understands the process and likes listening to music and knows what he’s doing, usually they can tune it by ear in a way that works a lot better than any sort of scientific method, at least for me. I mean there’s physics involved, there are principles you can’t get around. I always tell bands you can’t get around physics. There’s something to be said for things that you can get from the academic approach, but at the end of the day, you need somebody that is someone who makes records. I think a lot of times those [science] guys they don’t make records, they don’t understand what rules need to be broken in order for it to work.”
On Analog Vs. Digital:
“Up until pretty recently, if I had the budget, I was tracking the basics to tape and then bouncing that into Pro Tools. I travel with an HD rig, 24 in, 48 out, but I still mix on consoles and with outboards, so I don’t have a lot of plug-ins, so I’m using it as a tape machine replacement. I work pretty much always on Pro Tools HD. For rock bands I do the high sampling rates, and that seems to make the drums sound a lot better. And then I’m most of the time tracking on some kind of vintage console so you kind of wind up putting the smoke on it that way.
“The part of tape that I miss . . . certainly the sonics of it are more fun. Basically with the high sampling rates, the Pro Tools system where it’s at now, well what you put in is what you get out. I’ve got no complaints about that part of it. You know, it was just a lot more fun before. You had the challenge of punching in, and I was all about razor blade edits on the tape . . . you do one tricky tape edit and the band looks at you with new respect. You hold somebody’s master in pieces, you know, you feel like God. And now that it’s all in the computer and everybody’s got it on their laptops it gets really hard to impress anybody by pulling off a Pro Tools trick. They all want to know your shortcut keys . . . but it’s not the same as if you do a radical tape edit.
“I think there’s a big problem with the interface being so visual which is, I wouldn’t want to not have the functionality of that, but you’ve got to remember to use your ears. I just got one of those Tranzport [EQ Exceptional Quality Award winner, Oct. ’05] remotes and it’s the greatest thing because now I can be in between the monitors and running like a tape machine and listening rather than looking and that’s a great thing. You kind of have to adapt your method. I find myself going to Pro Tools and I wind up doing a lot more goofy processing on the way into the system like room mics. I’ve got this great limiter that does a lot of really cool, bizarre, fun stuff for tracking. So I find myself doing a lot more of that than I used to on tape and I think that’s a little bit making up for sort of the literalism that Pro Tools gives you back. It used to be if you wanted a singer to sound intense you could just slam the levels to tape and get a little grit on them, and now you’ve got to plug something in to make that happen.
“But I tend to mix to tape these days. I don’t know how that’s going to be with tape suppliers and stuff. And then you get into situations, I know on [Death Cab For Cutie’s] Transatlanticism (Barsuk/2003), they mastered the record regular and then they mastered it for SACD. And I think the song “Transatlanticism” . . . in between the first round of mastering and doing the SACD mastering, the tape decayed to the point where it was unplayable. It was a manufacturing defect. So they wound up doing the SACD mastering for that song off of what they had still had in digital, which is a bummer. The advantages of analog get lost when the tapes won’t play back.
On Making A Closet Sound Like An Arena:
“Alright, so I guess I’ll give the typical rock band mic list:
Kick: RE20 inside but I often try 421’s, 57’s, D112’s, and anything else around before I’m happy. A FET47 on the outside head (center), or the old NS10 woofer turned into a mic for outside the kick, and blended in — using it as a sort of subharmonic generator.
Snare: 57 + 451 taped together for the top, 57 gated off of the top signal for the strainers. Buss that shit together and hit it with a Distressor at 6:1. . . .
Toms: 57’s or 421’s. D122s for problematic floor toms. Often I undermic the floor toms with KM84s (remember to flip polarity). Special thanks to ace retired drum tech Carl Plaster (“The Master of Disaster”) for the 84 undermic and the NS10 woofer trick. . . .
Overheads: AKG 460s. If the drummer and the room are awesome then the coolest thing is a C24.
Hat: The bands I record, the hats are usually too loud anyway . . . John Agnello told me once that you can throw a T-shirt over the hat to tame a punk rock drummer and I’ve actually gotten that to work more than once. . . .
Room mics: Coles or 87’s via the awesome Compex limiter or an SPL Transient Designer. I usually set up a 635A through a Sans Amp for a garage-y kit sound as well.
Etc.: And the MOST important thing is to check the polarity on every mic on the kit.
The hardest thing to record. I usually use a combo of a 421 and a FET 47 and lightly compress it. I try not to use EQ if I can help it. For guys that play with fingers I’ll put a 160XT compressor between the instrument and the amp to even things out.
I’ll record a DI, but usually just in case I have to reamp it. It usually comes down to the player’s fingers and the instrument. I also almost always have to tweak the intonation.
57s and 460s bussed together through a Pultec or Summit tube EQ.
460s or 57s.
The best deal ever is an SM7. Seven times out of 10, it beats everything else in the studio. You can spend $300 on that or thousands on a Telefunken 251 or U67. I try half a dozen things on the vocalist and pick what works best with their voice. I’ll put them in an acoustically dead space and squash it with a combo of the Compex and an 1176 (the reissues are every bit as good as the old ones).
I travel with a 24-in/48-out Pro Tools HD2 rig. I run it at 88.2K for live rock bands and use the soft limit on drums and vocals. I don’t run with too many plug-ins because I’m usually on a decent console. I use Reason as an onboard synth/sampler rack, mostly for sampled Mellotrons from the Mellotron archive sample library. I also have an MPC for looping and programming.
But I pretty much use garden variety mics and processing because it always comes down to getting good sounds at the source. Good players, good drum tuning, and good guitar amps in a good room are more important than gear, but here’s some of the rest of what I bring:
NS10s + KRK E8 speakers: Monitoring is everything.
Compex stereo limiter: The one expensive compressor I’ve got (thanks to Doug Messenger for turning me on to them and finding one for me). Great on everything. Ibanez AD202 analog delay (2): the next best thing to tape slapback!
AKG spring reverbs: BX10s and BX20s DBX160XTs: the best deal still going. Find them on Ebay for about $200. Also,the DBX 902 de-essers. Making vocals cut through a busy mix requires a ton of compression, and subsequently some de-essing.
SPL Transient Designer: Make a closet sound like an arena.
DBX 120 subharmonic synthesizer: Be very careful with this.
Roland Dimension D: Stereoize anything.
Sans Amp classic pedals: I’ve got half a dozen — I keep blowing them up. Good for everything EXCEPT direct guitars.
Mutronics Mutator: For goofy LFO filter/OK Computer weirdness I’ve also recently got a Little Labs PCP — the handiest box ever.
And then I bring some choice guitars, a bazillion guitar pedals, and a few nifty combo guitar amps. Little amps always seem to record better. The Fender Pro-Junior is a copy of the old Champ circuit and works great. $300 at Guitar Center.
I’m very lucky that I get to track mostly on older Neve or API consoles so I don’t need to carry a bunch of pres or EQs. I’ll mix either on a Neve or SSL depending on the project. I like the SSL 9K, but I usually wind up on a 4K — which works well when you’re mixing for radio. If the band isn’t at the mix then the recall on the SSL is helpful. I still can’t get a good mix straight out of the computer, but it’s getting better all the time.
Lately I’ve been tracking everything at Long View (Farm, North Brookfield, MA) and mixing everything at The Magic Shop (NYC). In Seattle I’ll track and mix at Robert Lang Studios. In L.A. I mix at Skip Saylor’s and track at a few different places. Sunset Sound and Sound City are also excellent.